Saturday, August 22, 2009

Feature, photo essay explore life of fashion show production teacher who is quadruple amputee

From A feature story and photo essay by Matt Mendelsohn, who is a freelance journalist based in the Washington D.C. area. He is a former staff photographer with UPI and served as the director of photography for USA WEEKEND. You can see his work at his personal Web site: and you can read his blog at:

Here's the intro to the feature:

It's six o'clock in the evening and the models waiting in the ballroom of the Virginia Commonwealth University student commons are looking a little tired. They've been rehearsing the same 160 or so steps down the same runway for a while now, over and over, and the pain inflicted by high heels is starting to show. Downstairs, fellow students are lounging around or standing in line for the kind of fast food fare that makes just about any student union in the country indistinguishable from any other—Chik-Fil-A, pizza, Subway.

But up on the second floor in the Commonwealth Room, it's all business. Graphic arts majors fiddle with a complex animation sequence of the letters that make up the word "Muse" on two big screens, lighting technicians adjust spots, and the student models practice their best looks, that fleeting second when they've reached the catwalk's end and toss a flirty glare to the audience. Without any actual garments to wear—those won't arrive until the next morning—just about the only thing that is truly polished at this point, exactly twenty-four hours before show time, is the soundtrack. And so as model after model makes her way down the runway, the insidiously dreamy sounds of the L.A. duo The Bird and The Bee fill the ballroom with the kind of electro pop you could easily imagine playing in the background at any of the New York fall shows.

Give it up for me please
put your hands in the air
if you know what's good for you
you wanna shake it like you just don't care.

Among the 475 empty chairs, a woman sits with her head resting on the stage at the bitter end of the runway. A bit younger than the other professors who have come to steal a sneak peek of tomorrow's annual juried fashion show, she looks as though she might be taking a quick nap. But the truth is that Lindsay Aronson Ess knows this drill so well by now that exerting any energy to lift her head seems a waste of time. As teacher of the full semester class in fashion show production, there's not much more that she can do now. And so Lindsay just rests her head on the end of the runway, singing along to each song as it plays.

Would you please clap your hands
now get up on your feet
I beg of you to get up and dance
it's such a crazy kick ass beat.

Lindsay, it should be noted, has no hands to clap and no feet on which to get up. She had them back in the summer of 2007, when she was tall and thin and had just graduated from VCU with a fashion merchandising degree. Then, to use her words, a blur. When she entered Henrico Doctors' Hospital that summer, the procedure to remove a small piece of inflamed intestine, a nagging complication of her Crohn's disease, was supposed to go routinely. But supposed to go routinely rarely turns out well, and there hasn't been a routine day in Lindsay's life ever since. Not since the leak, not since the sepsis, not since the organ failures, the brain seizures, and not since the coma. Definitely not the coma. Not since one day in August turned to October and then drifted on towards Christmas. Certainly not since the quadruple amputations, the cruel coda to having been so close to death all those months and then surviving. Oh, honey, you know what they're going to do, right? the nurse said. There's no routine to being bathed and fed and dressed like a child mere months after you've graduated college, and no routine to learning how to walk again at the age of twenty-five. No routine in continuing a long-distance relationship with someone who admits to having originally been smitten by your looks, or to being with your mother almost every waking hour. There's no routine for taking a fistful of pills a day—the Pentasa, the Entocort EC, the Lexapro, the Keppra, the Urosidol, the Spiranolactone, the Zolpidem, the Lyrica, not to mention the occasional shot of actual alcohol. There's no routine, no manual, for wishing you were whole again, so that just one morning of your life you could actually wake up and make it to the bathroom on your own, even if the arms and legs you now covet so are made of acrylic and not skin and bone and muscle. And, perhaps most of all, no routine for the long, slow realization that those acrylic arms and legs might not, in the end, be the answer to anything. If you're Lindsay Ess, routine pretty much stopped on August 3, 2007.

But here tonight at this dress rehearsal, the only thing that is routine is fashion show production and Lindsay is clearly in her element. The young woman who so desperately wanted to be in the business of body image now owns the whole store. Lessons that might have been clinical lectures on price point and merchandise are now peppered with words like faith and belief and wrapped up in parables about the joys of water skiing. I see things differently now, she'll say. A leaf. A flower. Everything. And so it's no surprise to see her finally lift her head off that cozy perch at the end of the runway and yell something over the booming beat.

"Sex it up, ladies! Sexier! And Shera—no more tanning."